My Most Important Deck-Building Rule

Posted in Beyond the Basics on February 8, 2018

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

There are a lot of pieces of strategic advice you pick up over time. Some of these pieces are relatively simple: Counter your opponent's card-drawing spells in a control mirror. Play about seventeen lands in your Draft deck. And, of course: Bolt the turn-one Bird.

But there have been a couple revelations that have shaped my entire Magic thought process. They don't happen often, but when they do, they can crack open the Matrix and enable you to level up at Magic. Once I got beyond the basics and was actually looking to build competitive decks, there was one tip that improved my deck building the most, at all levels.

Today, I want to share it with you.

This could impact every deck you ever make—from your Draft deck, to your Standard Deck, to your Commander deck. It has certainly radically shaped how I think about deck building.

The piece of advice is simple: you're building a deck, not just a pile of cards.

What do you mean? you may ask. Of course I'm building a deck!

Well, yes, you're bringing 60 cards to the table for your deck, which will become your library. (Thanks, rule 401.1!) But is it a deck or a pile of cards?

It's an important, but subtle, distinction.

A deck has a strategy. A goal. A plan. It's directly employing overall tactics.

A pile of cards, on the other hand, can be incoherent. Synergies are an afterthought. You're stuck with cards pulling what you want to do in all kinds of different directions.

Curious? Read on.

A Conflict of Interests

Let me illustrate this first and foremost with an example.

Imagine you're playing against your friend Stromboli, who has what looks like an aggressive red-white beatdown deck. Stromboli leads off with an Elite Vanguard. Then they follow it up with a Veteran Motorist.

On turn two, you're facing down 5 power. Your back is up against the wall already! You don't have a good play until next turn. Yikes!

Stromboli untaps, plays a land, and adds to his pressure by slamming one of these down:

Wait . . . what?

There are far greater mysteries at play here than "Why did Stromboli play this instant during their main phase?" Namely: What are those cards doing in the same deck together?

Now, there are legitimate reasons that could be the case. Perhaps the white deck contains cards like Ajani's Pridemate and Angelic Accord, paving the way for a life gain theme. Is Ritual of Rejuvenation really the best card for that? Probably not, but I at least see the intent behind including it.

But most of the time when I see this happen, it is a "pile of cards" problem.

Stromboli's deck is clearly in conflict with itself.

An aggressive deck, strategically, is seeking to reduce its opponent down to 0 as quickly as possible. As a result, its plan is to attack quickly, apply pressure, and finish off the opponent before they get a chance to stabilize and recover.

Stromboli's first two plays clearly work within this framework. Aggressively statted creatures. Great!

But Stromboli's third play is totally going the other direction: it doesn't impact the board, and it ups their life total, which wasn't under pressure at all. They're the one planning to attack; they want to be dealing you extra damage with burn spells, not growing their own life total!

A reverse example is also true. If Stromboli is playing a slower control deck, and their strategy is to survive until the endgame, then Ritual of Rejuvenation makes more sense and it's the creatures they're playing that are poor fits for the strategy. (And once again: Is Ritual of Rejuvenation great? Not really, but at least it makes sense in that case.)

Stromboli's deck would probably have a lot better time if they swapped out those Ritual of Rejuvenations for Lightning Strikes and were dealing you 3 damage instead!

In Magic, there are enough forms of conflict to deal with: your opponent's hand, your opponent's creatures, and your own slowly growing inner turmoil as you try and figure out how to attack, to name a few. Don't let your deck also conflict with itself.

Making a Statement

The first thing to do when building your deck, long before sleeving up, before even adding a bunch of cards, is determining what you want your deck to do.

Every deck should have a mission statement—some kind of game plan that guides your deck-building decisions. It can be simple, like "I am a red-white aggressive deck that wants to attack and win quickly." No problem.

You can also make it as complicated as "First I'm going to get Swans of Bryn Argoll onto the battlefield, then I'm going to play Seismic Assault and discard Dakmor Salvage, dredge it for one of the draws, draw my entire deck, discard a few lands to deal damage to you, move to my cleanup step, discard Emrakul, the Aeons Torn to hand size, which makes me go back to my end step, then after my graveyard shuffles back in I'm going to do it again, essentially taking unlimited new cleanup steps and discarding until I've finally brought your life total to 0."

I've played both kinds. (What gave it away?)

But you need to have something to latch onto. Simply "This deck wants to win the game," or "This is a red-white deck" isn't enough to help guide your decisions.

Are you aggressive? Defensive? Do you have a lot of synergies in your deck? How are you going to try and win the game? These are all questions you can ask to craft your answer.

Once you have that down, you can start considering every card in that light. "Does Elite Vanguard help me win quickly? Yes, it does, by attacking! Does Built to Smash help me win quickly? Yes, it does, by helping me attack! Does Exquisite Archangel help me win quickly? No, it doesn't—it costs seven mana." This simple heuristic can really help guide your deck-building decisions.

So this applies to Constructed decks, sure, but Booster Draft and Sealed not so much, right?

Actually, it absolutely applies to Limited formats . . . arguably even more so!

Not only do you have the deck-building part to consider—you have to keep it in mind while you draft your entire deck! Four picks into the draft, what is your deck shaping up to do?

If you took four cheap creatures, you're going to have a very different answer than if you took some removal and card-drawing spells. During the entire drafting process, with each pick you have to be thinking about what deck you're trying to build—and know when to pivot when necessary!

When I wind up building a subpar deck after a wreck of a draft, it's usually because I didn't determine what my deck was trying to accomplish. Because in Draft, so much of the deck building really occurs while you're grabbing your picks. You're not always going to have the ideal mix of cards—sometimes you'll have to go a bit off plan in search of playables or to play a powerful rare—but in general you should aim to stay the course when you can.

Whether your favorite format is Constructed or Limited, Commander or Cube Draft, keeping what your deck actually aims to do in mind—your mission statement—is paramount to success.

Pushing a Linear

Another great example of this can be seen with Ixalan block.

In Magic, there are what we in R&D call "linear decks." These are decks that have a straightforward and often single-minded strategy. They put their eggs in one basket. Often, these decks need to hit a critical mass of one specific thing to make its result greater than the sum of its individual parts. (You can also read more about this in Reid Duke's great article here.)

And where does Ixalan fit in? Tribal decks (meaning "creature type matters") like those you find in Ixalan are a typical example of a linear strategy. The more creatures of a tribe you pair with cards that benefit those creatures, the better it is. Mist-Cloaked Herald on its own isn't great, but when you start flopping out a bunch of Merfolk Mistbinders it becomes a serious threat!

This can really impact your deck-building plans. It doesn't make much sense to play Merfolk Mistbinder and follow it up with a Sailor of Means in your Constructed deck. (In Limited? Not ideal, but hey, these things happen.)

And this doesn't just happen with tribal decks.

Another great example is a burn deck. If I just slot in four copies of Lava Spike into a random red deck, there's no guarantee it'll be a good fit. If I'm playing a creature-based aggressive deck, I might prefer more creatures or a more flexible removal spell like Lightning Strike; if I'm playing more midrange or controlling, spending a single card for 3 damage might not be ideal.

However, in conjunction with playing a bunch of other burn spells and piling on your opponent with fire and lightning, Lava Spike becomes dramatically more powerful. A burn deck is essentially a combo deck—except instead of assembling a combo in its hand or on the battlefield, it casts spells over several turns to bring its opponent to 0. But if you don't have a critical mass, you'll find yourself coming up short—which is why decks with player-only burn cards like Lava Spike tend to feature lots of other player-only burn cards. It's a linear plan.

If you're building a deck and your plan sounds like it might be linear, try and push it as much as possible. It is possible to go too far—you probably do ultimately want some nonland, non-Merfolk cards in your Merfolk deck—but you won't know how far is too far until you try.

Finding the Good Stuff

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum are what are commonly referred to by the wonderfully descriptive name "good stuff" decks. These are decks where you basically pour in a ton of the best cards in the environment until it becomes a bit of deck soup.

For example, in current Standard, what are Bristling Hydra and The Scarab God doing in the same black-green-blue (Sultai) midrange deck together?

Answer: they're both just very powerful cards!

You might ask, "What is this deck's mission statement? Maybe the deck has a bit of energy synergy, but how can playing these cards together really constitute a plan?"

And yet, even here, they are part of a plan.

The idea of a "good stuff" deck is nearly the inverse of a linear strategy. These decks play a lot of cards that don't always synergize with each other, hoping that their raw card strength will be enough. If you can match your opponent card-for-card with generally stronger spells, eventually you are likely to come out ahead.

And therein lies the mission statement. For a deck like this, I would expect the mission statement to be along the lines of "Overwhelm your opponent with some of the most powerful individual cards in the format, so that as you trade cards back and forth over a longer game, you come out with the advantage." You can write it longer or shorter depending on your level of specificity, but that's really what the plan comes down to.

That tells me, for example, that I don't want to be playing the most efficient aggressive black creatures in the format, because I expect games to go longer and win by card quality. Instead, cards like Servant of the Conduit help me cast spells quicker, and Merfolk Branchwalker and Jadelight Ranger serve as powerful creatures that provide early drops and allow me to hit my land drops later on.

This may not be as tight as a linear deck, but it still has a perfectly reasonable mission statement that guides its deck-building decisions.

On a Mission

Almost every successful deck ever has had a plan behind its construction. And now hopefully you can apply this to your own deck building.

I should also note, your deck is not always going to perfectly follow its mission.

There are competing factors, of course. You may need to, for example, play some slightly weaker two-drop cards that are in your good stuff deck for the sake of casting spells before turn four.

But where you can, use your mission statement as your guiding light. Follow it, and victory should follow as well.

Hopefully this was a useful look at deck design you can now take back and use to improve your own decks. I know it has certainly helped me improve mine!

Have any thoughts or questions? I'd love to hear from you! Send me what's on your mind by firing off a tweet, asking me a question on Tumblr, or emailing me (in English, please) at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com.

Have fun, and may all your decks now have mission statements!

Talk with you again soon,

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

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